Of Hearth And History: A Chat WIth Rafia Zakaria
By Madiha Waris Qureshi and Pooja Pande
Torn between conformity and self-assertion, frequently pushed into isolation, and devastated by the violence around them, Pakistani women are marked by resilience and often confounding choices. Journalist, attorney, activist, and daughter of immigrants, Rafia Zakaria wants to reclaim the narrative of Pakistan for its women with her first book, ‘The Upstairs Wife’. Based on real life events and Zakaria’s own family history, the book chronicles the lives of ordinary women she grew up with as well as of powerful Pakistani female figures, and explores the events that have shaped these women’s paths and the parallels in their life stories.
Papercuts: Tell us about the impetus for The Upstairs Wife – the various places that it originated from, and when you knew it would be a book.
RZ: I am a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and various other newspapers. In my journalistic work I write primarily about women’s lives – their trials and troubles. Emotionally, this has been dispiriting work, as I have chronicled and recorded the imposition of constraints on women and their systematic erasure from public life and spaces in Pakistan.
In that sense, this book was a form of rebellion — of reclaiming the narrative of Pakistan for Pakistani women. And since my aunt was the most marginalized woman I knew, and her fate most responsible for defining the sense of injustice that I saw prevailing in our intimate lives, it made sense to me to write her story.
Papercuts: The narrative voice of the book is unarguably one of the book’s (several) strengths. There is the voice of the child who absorbs via sound, smells, images, and remembered feelings, blended in with the voice of the mature woman who has lived and learnt from life. Could you tell us about how you found this voice and how you worked on it?
RZ: A writer’s first and central commitment has to be to her readers; realizing this is crucial to developing a voice that can speak to them. In my case, this involved abandoning all hesitations and half-truths, as well as my desire not to anger one person or to please another. I wrote about my family, so all of this had to be worked through with them, but all writers have to work through it in some way. I believe that the connection between the reader and writer has to be built on a foundation of honesty and by embracing vulnerability. Your words cannot resonate with readers unless you do that work, and embrace that effort of being as honest as much as possible.
Papercuts: There is significant dynamism and friction at play between parallel worlds throughout The Upstairs Wife: the personal and the political; the home and the nation; the female and the male domains. Would you say one works as a lens to view the other? Did you structure the book deliberately this way?
RZ: I grew up in a female world where the relational, the private, and the emotional were central. Yet there was an assumption that this world was somehow distinct and separated from the public and the political. I do not believe this, and so I wanted to reveal how the boundaries between the two are largely artificial and require more questioning.
When women inhabit a different sphere from men and are dependent on them for influence in the public realm, men become instruments, not partners.
When there is an immense amount of violence in the public sphere, it seeps into the ruthlessness that is experienced in the private sphere. In exploring this idea of division and partition, whether it is between two countries or two wives, or the male and female, I wanted to pose the question of how essential or real they really are.
Papercuts: In relation to the previous question – the title seems to place emphasis on the female domain. Was that a conscious choice and were there other working titles? Do you think that’s a fair interpretation?
RZ: Yes, it was absolutely intentional in that I felt that the contemporary narrative of feminism or female empowerment did not place enough importance on the microcosm; there was emphasis only on the abandonment of the private realm and the inhabiting of a public one. I do not think that the latter is unimportant of course, but I think that there has been inadequate attention to the battles fought and won in the female domain and the ethics of those battles.
I feel that Pakistan is probably the most dehumanized country in the world at this time; reduced to a narrative of terror and strategic interests and to serving as the origin of villainy.
One crucial question here that relates to your point about division is simply whether there can ever be real love in a marriage when such divisions persist. When women inhabit a different sphere from men and are dependent on them for influence in the public realm, men become instruments, not partners. So inequality then centrally involves this assumption that marriage will be a transactional relationship between two spheres.
Papercuts: Was it a challenge to maintain the balance between telling a very intimate story with such an incredible breadth of historical context running alongside? How did you manage the transitions between the deeply personal narratives of your family and the complex, larger-than-life background spanning past and present?
RZ: I wanted to give readers the experience of what it felt like to be Pakistani. In this sense, sometimes historical events come very close; at other times they are a backdrop to personal dramas. Such is the ebb and flow of history and ordinary lives in any country. There are a lot of questions, mostly unanswered, on why things happened and what they meant. We do not always answer them and are not always able to. I wanted to capture that for readers. I feel that Pakistan is probably the most dehumanized country in the world at this time; reduced to a narrative of terror and strategic interests and to serving as the origin of villainy. My challenge was to make readers feel Pakistan, to experience its complexity and its frequent inexplicability.
In practical terms, of course, I was guided by the idea of creating this tapestry whose ultimate pattern was not (as in the case of all history) discernible. I did a lot of archival research but all of it was guided by this idea that I wanted the intimate and the personal, whether it was historical or familial, to be central to the book.
Papercuts: The Upstairs Wife deals beautifully with concepts of home and making a home, and the struggles of doing so. The English desperately tried to make the colony home-like for themselves and post-Partition, those who were displaced had to rebuild the idea of home from scratch. Can you elaborate on this?
RZ: I think all migrants, whether their origins are from a colonizing power like the British or the rest of us that search for better lives and better jobs, believe that we can have it all. In this sense, we believe that we can have all the advantages of a new place, its gifts and riches and opportunities, as well as all the comforts of what we have left behind. My family’s experience is an illustration of that: a need to prove that the decision to leave was the right one.
Pakistan’s reality is another iteration of that same belief. In the case of those who migrated after Partition, the burden was loving an idea and then loving its reality. The idea of Pakistan was well-loved but the question of loving Pakistan’s reality is a much harder one. These questions, of whether a place one migrates to can ever feel like home, if that original sense of comfort and security and familiarity can ever be reconstructed, or ever lose the label of being somehow artificial, are much more complicated.
Papercuts: Can you please tell us about the research process for The Upstairs Wife? What portions were difficult to write and research and how?
RZ: Different portions provided different gifts and obstacles. In researching the time when my grandparents lived in Bombay, I obviously had to rely on their recollections and archival research. This was wonderful in that it led me to stories I never knew, like the one about Ruttie Jinnah, the shipwreck and such, but challenging in that I had no personal experience of those events or that era.
In looking through archives around the time of my own childhood and of martial law in Pakistan, there were other challenges. It was very difficult, for instance, to find a definitive death count of the Ojhri Camp incident. Similarly, events that happened in Karachi in the early nineties are still contested politically and their truths are harder to sift through.
In some way, I still believe that (Karachi is the best city in the world) and probably always will, for that is the power of home no matter how far you wander from it.
As I got closer to present times, there were similar mysteries: the process of co-operation and investigation in the War on Terror between Pakistani and American authorities, or the numbers of refugees and the changing ethnic demographics in Karachi. These continue to be deeply contested issues which require you to take sides politically. I, on the other hand, was only on the side of the ordinary woman, sometimes untouched and sometimes devastated by the details of the world around her.
Papercuts: What was your writing routine like for The Upstairs Wife? Did your family members include your early readers and what were their opinions? Did you change anything drastically?
RZ: As a writer, I work best in isolation and with as few distractions as possible. So, as austere as it sounds, I had a very set schedule where I tried to write a certain number of words a day until I completed a chapter and then set a week aside to revise it. In terms of discussion, I find it hard to really discuss aspects of what I am writing about while I am writing it. My family, of course, knew what I was doing but they probably heard about it more rather than actually reading it until it was done.
I am not a very solitary person, but if you want to be a writer you have to make peace with that singularity and learn to love it. For me, that was definitely as much a part of the journey of writing this book as it is perhaps for any author working on her first book.
Papercuts: The Upstairs Wife also offers the old interplay of Karachi and Bombay in an interesting manner. We are curious to know more about your connections with these cities. Can you tell us about Bombay in particular, since the book elaborates on your Karachi connection fairly well?
RZ: I have never been to Bombay or to India, but as I recount in the book, the former left its imprint on my childhood because I saw all the adults around me obsessed with recreating it and reminiscing about it. Karachi, of course, always fell short and as a child it really angered and upset me; it was the only home I knew and the only city I knew and I wanted very much to believe that it was the best city in the world. In some way, I still believe that and probably always will, for that is the power of home no matter how far you wander from it. In this sense, I wanted to redeem Karachi, to try and reveal it for what it has been through rather than simply what it is now.
I wish I could visit Bombay and see it for myself, but the differences between India and Pakistan have not made that possible. I think it would be a very moving experience to finally be able to see where my family came from.
Papercuts: The Upstairs Wife has a very curious and effective sense of humour. It presents the sheer absurdity of a situation, warts and all, in a way that its being an accepted way of life is rendered up for questioning. For instance, the fact of a woman not being present at her marriage contract sealing, or a neighbourhood going to war over water, mimicking two nations at war. What are your thoughts on this?
RZ: Well, I am glad that the humour came through! Seriously though, I don’t believe that to love Pakistan requires us to lie about Pakistan. I think humour is definitely one of the ways through which people make sense of surreal experiences; Partition was one and Pakistan’s current reality is another. Sometimes the sheer volume of extraordinary events requires one to laugh about them. Ordinary people in Pakistan are funny, because what they have to live through requires them to be able to laugh at themselves. Sometimes it’s the only way you can survive.
Reading a rule or a law does not tell you the anguish of those who spend their lives under its power.
Papercuts: In the book, you touch upon the lives of two prominent women in Pakistan’s history who lived in Karachi. One is Benazir Bhutto, whose remarkable story runs almost parallel to that of Amina’s in the novel. You note that to Pakistanis, she was the “freest woman in Pakistan,” her life in such sharp contrast to those of the women you grew up around. Another significant female figure in your book is Fatima Jinnah. Tell us about the parallels you saw between these two very different women’s lives, and why you chose to weave their stories with that of Amina’s.
RZ: I wanted to reveal the complexity of both women’s lives and why they were both interesting and also confounding to me. With Benazir, I wondered why she who seemed so unbound by the constraints of Pakistani society — being educated abroad and wealthy beyond imagination — chose to conform. Why did she marry a man chosen for her, or marry at all? Similarly, with my aunt I wondered if she had had a choice in her situation, would she have decided to live life any other way? So in these stories and in all the stories of all the women in the book, the question I am posing is one of choice. How much did they have and how much did they exercise it? Do circumstances dictate everything about our lives or can we choose perspective and in that way resist regardless? As a writer, I do not have the answers, only the stories that I hope readers will engage with and answer for themselves.
As an author, I feel that my first commitment is to hold up a mirror to the world so that readers can see it in narrative form.
Papercuts: How did your work with victims of domestic violence feed into your research and inspiration for this book?
RZ: As a lawyer, you spend a lot of time discussing and explaining rules, and structuring arguments around them. In being exposed to so many different sorts of women from different backgrounds in my work at the The Julian Center Shelter in Indiana, I learned that rules represent at best a very small portion of the realities that women face. Reading a rule or a law does not tell you the anguish of those who spend their lives under its power. It was frustrating to not be able to do anything about those unsaid dimensions as a lawyer. For that, I had to turn to writing and try as best as I could to represent the emotional anguish of those who bear the burdens of rules and laws, and in most societies this weight falls on women.
Papercuts: As the stories you tell in the book progress, the conclusions they reach are considerably bleak. With the alarming rise of religious extremism in Pakistan, it seems whatever little progress was made for a majority of Pakistani women has been put into reverse gear. What windows of opportunity (or optimism) do you see for Pakistani women against an increasingly complex mire of generations-old patriarchy and this newer wave of religious conservatism?
RZ: As an author, I feel that my first commitment is to hold up a mirror to the world so that readers can see it in narrative form. The Upstairs Wife tries to underscore the complexity and nuances of Pakistani society that I feel are lost in black and white constructions. In this sense, I guess I believe that finding a solution or a path forward requires this reckoning of what has gone before, and those who have come before. It is only in confronting those connections and seeing how the past has led to the present that the future can be molded in some way.
Papercuts: Your personal story is a very different one from that of the women in your family; you overcame a broken marriage at a young age to chart your very own course in life. Can we expect a memoir in the near future?
RZ: I think the process of figuring out my own course is inextricably connected to revisiting the stories I grew up with, and that formed my ideas about femininity, love and justice. I felt that I could not understand my own journey without first undertaking this one, and the book is a result of that. Yes, I hope to write about my own life as well.
Papercuts: Who are your greatest influences as a writer? And what are you reading these days?
RZ: The greatest influences would be Jenny Diski and Doris Lessing, in whose masterful work and rendition of women, I found an example of honesty and craft beyond anything I can hope to produce. Also John Berger and Ismat Chughtai, whose work in different ways gave me the courage and inspiration to write this book. At present I am reading Mona Eltahawy’s upcoming book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution and my friend Aisha Saeed’s newly published young adult novel Written in the Stars. I just finished Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: The Eruption of Delhi.